Tim Spires sits in an ordinary white office space wearing a baseball cap and a dark long-sleeved shirt. He looks squarely into the phone camera in front of him and warmly directs his message to the daughter he hasn’t seen in 17 years.
“I love you. I miss you. I never stopped loving you.”
The video is recorded by Miracle Messages, a nonprofit based in San Francisco that works to connect homeless people with loved ones they may have lost track of over the years. Volunteers record these heartfelt video messages and then use social media to find the family and friends of the individuals and deliver the messages.
The founder and chief executive officer of Miracle Messages, Kevin Adler, was initially inspired to reach out to the homeless people in his neighborhood by the memory of his late uncle Mark, who had been on and off the streets for 30 years. Mr. Adler found that many of those he spoke with had a similar story – not only about homelessness, but also about disconnectedness with loved ones.
“I thought ... if that’s the case, theoretically, I could just walk down the street and talk to every homeless individual that I see and offer them a chance to reconnect with their loved ones. And maybe some of them will take me up on that offer.”
So he did just that. One day in December 2014, he walked down Market Street in San Francisco offering biscuits, tea, and the opportunity to record a holiday message for loved ones. There he met a man named Jeffrey, who recorded a video message for family that he hadn’t seen in 22 years.
Later that night, Adler posted the video to a Facebook group linked to Jeffrey’s hometown. Within a few weeks, Adler found Jeffrey’s sister and was able to facilitate a reconnection and eventual reunion between the siblings.
“I realized two things” from this experience, Adler says. “This shouldn’t be happening in the 21st century ... and then I also realized Jeffrey’s probably not the only one” who could benefit from some help getting in touch. He committed himself full time to developing what is now Miracle Messages.
To date, the nonprofit has recorded and delivered more than 200 video messages, approximately half of which have led to a reunion with friends and family. Of those reunions, one-fourth have led to stable housing for the individuals.
Homelessness is a particularly acute issue for California, which has about a quarter of the homeless population in the United States, according to a report by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Spires’s story of reconnecting
Mr. Spires, who hadn’t seen his daughter since she and her mother moved across the country when she was 3 years old, was at a shelter when he first heard about Miracle Messages. Spires, who was transitioning between housing at the time, listened to a Miracle Messages volunteer speak about its services. He immediately hoped to reconnect with his daughter.
A private investigator, Mark Askins, who volunteers his detective skills to Miracle Messages, took on Spires’s case, combing through online obituaries and Facebook profiles until he found Spires’s daughter. Within 48 hours, they had contacted her on Facebook and shared a recorded video of Spires with her. Now, Spires regularly calls and sends emails to his daughter with the continued assistance of Mr. Askins and other Miracle Messages volunteers.
Spires attributes his newfound relationship with his daughter to Miracle Messages. “I never would have been able to find her on my own,” he says. “I don’t have the resources. I don’t have the computer intelligence.”
In an effort to expand the reach of Miracle Messages, Adler recently created a hotline, 800-MISS-YOU. He hopes the number will help him reach his goal of reuniting 1 million people by 2023.
Rethinking the homeless label
Adler’s aims go beyond reuniting loved ones. He describes homelessness as a limiting and stigmatizing label. “A big part of our work is reframing people who are homeless as someone’s somebody,” he says, emphasizing common humanity instead of divisive labels. Adler has shared this message on the TED stage as a 2016 TED resident.
With this message, Adler hopes to rebuild social support systems and strengthen communities. “We’re a nonprofit that helps people experiencing homelessness reunite with their loved ones,” says Adler, “and in the process, reconnect with us as their neighbors.”
After reconnecting with his daughter, Spires is helping to share the Miracle Messages story in his community and regularly volunteers for the organization. He now lives in a studio apartment in San Francisco and is helping his daughter arrange a flight to the city so they can meet in person. It is a reunion he has hoped for ever since he lost contact with her and her mother.
“I can’t emphasize enough, the greatest thing that’s ever going to happen to me for the rest of my days is finding my daughter,” he says. “And Miracle Messages did that.”
• For more, visit miraclemessages.org. Shortly after this story went to press in the Monitor’s magazine, the Monitor learned that Spires had just died suddenly. He had spoken with his daughter several days beforehand, and Miracle Messages is helping to arrange a flight to San Francisco for her so she can meet her remaining family.